Wednesday, April 15, 2020

It's Been A While...


I haven't blogged in months and it's mainly because I've gotten tired of refuting theism and religion. I just don't have the time and interest for long-form blogging anymore, so I'm taking an extended break. I might occasionally post an argument I think of, but I don't know how often I will do that. If you want to follow me in any capacity, you can follow me on Twitter, because that's the only place I'm still active. Just click on the Twitter link over to the right.

I recently made a simple argument there:


What this argument demonstrates is that the Christian god's intrinsically trinitarian nature is not logically necessary, and therefore the Christian god's existence is not logically necessary. Since it is logically possible a different (non-trinitarian) god could exist, such a god is not necessary. This is the same logic theists use when they claim the universe could have been different, and therefore is not necessary. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!

One could claim god is not logically necessary but is metaphysically necessary, instead. But I could make the same argument about the universe. (And I have.) Once you acknowledge god is not logically necessary, you can't argue its metaphysically necessary without allowing the atheist to make the same argument about the universe. I really hope most atheists and theists come to understand this, since most currently don't.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Quote Of The Day: A Neural Network Framework For Cognitive Bias


A particular question comes up for me when debating god's existence about why we homo sapiens would have so many cognitive biases built into our thinking if it is the case that god created us for the purposes of knowing god's existence and the truth (as many theists claim): Why would god design us with so many flaws hindering our ability to know the truth if our very purpose was to know the truth?

For example, why would god give us a confirmation bias that makes it difficult for us to notice contrary evidence? Can this all be swept under the rug with the ol' "God has morally sufficient reasons for this" explainer? If that sours the theist, one attempt to deny all this is by saying our cognitive biases are not hardwired. But, here's a paper demonstrating A Neural Network Framework for Cognitive Bias.

I leave you a select quote from it (emphasis mine).

The brain (like all neural networks) functions in a highly associative way. Correlation and coincidence detection are the basic operations of neural functioning, as manifested in, e.g., Hebb’s rule (Hebb, 1949; Shatz, 1992), the ‘Law of Effect’ (Thorndike, 1927, 1933), Pavlovian conditioning (Pavlov, 2010), or autocorrelation (Reichardt, 1961). As a result, the brain automatically and subconsciously ‘searches’ for correlation, coherence, and (causal) connections: it is highly sensitive to consistent and invariant patterns..........Examples of heuristics and bias resulting from associative information processing are the control illusion (people tend to overestimate the degree to which they are in control (Langer, 1975; Matute et al., 2015), superstition (Skinner, 1948; Risen, 2015), spurious causality (seeing causality in unconnected correlations), the conjunction fallacy (Tversky and Kahneman, 1983), the representativeness heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman, 1981a), and the previously mentioned story bias......In line with the Hebb doctrine (Hebb, 1949), the neural network framework contributes to an explanation of these phenomena by the way (the weight of) connections between neurons are affected by covarying inputs. Synaptic strengths are typically altered by either the temporal firing pattern of the presynaptic neuron or by modulatory neurons (Marder and Thirumalai, 2002). Neurons that repeatedly or persistently fire together, change each other’s excitability and synaptic connectivity (Destexhe and Marder, 2004). This basic principle, i.e., “cells that fire together, wire together” (Shatz, 1992), enables the continuous adaptation and construction of neural connections and associations based on simultaneous and covarying activations.

I'm not sure one can fully deny that cognitive bias has any neuro-biological basis at all.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Quote Of The Day: "Nones" Are Growing And They're Not Civically Engaged


Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and opinion writer for the Religion News Service is fearful for the future of civic engagement in the US because the rising "nones" (those with no religious preference), are the least likely to volunteer.

In his recent OP-ED, he created the following treemap of the religious composition in the US as of 2018 taken from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study:



Protestants, once a dominant majority, now are only 39% of the US population, followed by the "nothing in particular" nones at 20%. Further down the list, atheists and agnostics make up a combined 12%. So the percentage of atheists, agnostics, and nones according to this study would be 32%, a third of the US.

This worries Burge, as those with nothing in particular are less likely to volunteer or engage politically, he writes:

No matter how one feels about religion, it’s undeniable that religious traditions have spent decades building networks that operate behind the scenes to support those who are most vulnerable in our society. As the number of socially detached people grows, the ability of faith groups to fill in the gaps will be diminished, and once these ministries disappear, it seems highly unlikely that they can be quickly or easily replaced.

Finding ways to get these individuals to reintegrate into their communities might lead to benefits not only for these individuals but also for towns and cities in their fight to re-create social capital.

Should those who promote secularism be worried if this is true? Unintended consequences have a nasty tendency of rearing their ugly heads in unexpected places. It seems to me that those who are "nothing in particular" are nothing in particular because they are less likely to be socially and civically engaged. Religion is just one more thing they are disengaged from. If that's the case, it may be impossible (or at least very hard) to get them to participate in the areas traditionally done and cultivated by religious communities and institutions. And while secular organizations have made some inroads in promoting volunteerism in recent decades, the bulk of the future civic engagement might indeed by at the hands of a shrinking population.

Interestingly, Burge separates the nones from atheists and agnostics in his piece and argues that educational level is the main factor of decreased civic engagement. The nones have the lowest levels of educational achievement while atheists have some of the highest. So while all this news looks bad on the nones, it doesn't necessarily look bad on atheists.




Friday, May 31, 2019

Religions And Birth Rates: Not What You Think? | Hans Rosling


It seems that I discovered Swedish born statistician Hans Rosling a little too late. He died February 7th, 2017 of cancer, just before I stumbled upon his many inspiring talks on the changing facts of world data.

A point Rosling made over and over again is that many of us are operating with 20 or 30 year old statistics in our heads in terms of how we think the world is. We tend to think, for example, that many third world countries today are statistically where they were in the 1980s and 90s in terms of birth rates and poverty rates. This makes us mistakenly think that in countries like India and Bangladesh, women are still on average having 6 or 7 kids. In the last 30 years, birth rates have dropped in almost the entire world, and it is always directly correlated with reductions of poverty and rising standards of living.

This brings me to the topic of religion and birth rates. It is commonly believed that religions like Islam encourage high birth rates and that this will ensure that the population of Muslims around the world will outpace and outnumber all other religions and those without religion. While it is true that Muslim majority countries have on average more children per woman than non-Muslim countries, when the standard of living is raised, the birth rate drops, just as it does in the rest of the Western world.

In India in 2018 the birth rate is 2.2 per woman, in Bangladesh it is 2.0, Indonesia, 2.3, Iran, 1.6, Bahrain, 1.9, Qatar, 1.8, Turkey, 2.0, and Saudi Arabia, 2.4. These countries have dramatically increased their standard of living since the 1980s, when they had birth rates 2 or 3 times higher. To put this in perspective, the US birth rate in 2018 was 1.9, roughly on par with many of these countries.

Muslim majority countries that haven't increased their standard of living, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Mauritania, still have high birth rates of 4.3, 4.2, 6.0, and 4.5 respectively.

What this all means is 2 things: (1) the Islamic world is not immune to lower, Western-level birth rates. That is to say, there is nothing necessarily intrinsic about Islam that prevents countries from lowering their birth rate as they economically advance, and (2) to lower birth rates one must tackle poverty. This means it is not necessarily the case that Islam will come to dominate the future population with its higher birth rates as organizations like PEW have predicted (to which I think they made several mistakes).

Watch Rosling explain in his eccentric way in more detail in his 2012 Ted talk. (Also check out his site gapminder.org to see the data for yourself).



Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Socialists Are The New Atheists (Sort Of)


A recent poll from Gallup came out this month that showed socialists are now the least trusted group to be president, and atheists now are only the second least trusted group. The survey showed that 60% of Americans would vote for a well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist, compared to only 47% for a socialist on the same conditions.


Twenty years ago, another Gallup poll showed that only 49% of Americans would vote for an atheist, similar to where socialists are now. While there are obvious differences in what a socialist is and what an atheist is (socialism is a political and economic ideology, whereas atheism isn't), both carry negative stigmas, however. Both are, for example, unfairly associated with the worst of the communist regimes of the 20th century.

Still, while the acceptance today for an atheist president in the US is only 60%, it used to be only 18% back in 1958. That's a 42 percentage point increase in 61 years. At this rate, atheist presidents will be accepted by all Americans by 2070! But I'm sure that will never happen, as there will always be a contingent of Americans who will never trust an atheist in the White House. Though given the trend, which could speed up in the coming years as Boomers begin to die off and the more secular Gen Xers and Millennials become the most important voting blocks, we should see a viable openly atheist presidential candidate at some point likely in the next 20 years.



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"No Religion" Largest Single Religious Affiliation


I haven't been able to blog not nearly as often as in the past due to more important obligations, so I have a quicky here. The 2018 General Social Survey (GSS), which tracks, among other things, religious adherence indicated that the number of "nones," or Americans with no religion has risen above all religious denominations. The nones are now at 23.1%, higher than the number of Evangelical Protestants—long America's dominant religious group—who have fallen in recent decades to 22.8% (though statistically within the margin of error.) The below image is courtesy of Ryan Burge's tweet:



Judging from the trends, it appears that most of the surge among the nones is coming from the Mainline Protestant denominations, with slightly less coming from Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. I've been listening to many arguments from conservatives about how the decline in religion is having and will continue to have major unintended social and political consequences. In recent years I've become open to the possibility of there being some positive social effects religion has on populations that may be lost once traditional religion declines as an unintended consequence.

If it really is the case that the religious give more to charity than the secular, for example, this potentially could be a problem. The secular, who tend to lean left in their politics, usually see government as a solution to helping those in need through programs like tuition free college, universal healthcare, and universal basic income (which I just wrote about). Conservatives, who tend to lean more religious, think this should be handled in the private sector through the churches or synagogues, as it had in the past. This is one salient reason why conservatives tend to hate the idea of government providing social and economic safety nets: it reduces the need for organized religion.

I personally think it's a horrible idea to promote religion as a means to provide social and economic safety nets on large scales. Sure, locally it may work. But as a solution to our nation's ever worsening healthcare and economic plights, it would be catastrophic. I don't want to have to be guilt tripped into paying for my next door neighbor's medical bills when he can't, and neither, I'd argue, would most Americans. Conservatives have to face the reality that America is rapidly secularizing and it's never going back. Our job now is to figure out what unintended problems this will bring, and how they should be solved without a nod to religion.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What Would I Do With An Extra $1000 A Month?


The 2020 presidential race is nearing full swing and in my opinion there is no shortage of good candidates to choose from on the Democratic side. A little less than a year ago I came across Andrew Yang, an Asian American entrepreneur running for president in a campaign centered around UBI: universal basic income.

His idea of UBI is you'd give every American citizen between the ages of 18 and 64 $1,000 per month, no questions asked. I've been warming up to the idea over the past few months and I'm basically at the point of supporting it, although I stop short of an enthusiastic consent.

The "freedom dividend" as Yang calls it, would be paid for by a 10% value added tax or VAT that would make corporations pay a larger share of the tax burden and hinder the offshoring of their revenues that many larger businesses like Apple use to pay a much lower share of taxes. All other developed countries use a VAT and it's argued by some that it's time the US does the same. I generally support the idea even though I've heard criticisms of how a VAT tax introduces a disincentive to consumers, since the costs are eventually passed on to consumers.

Setting aside any issues with the tax increases of a VAT, the pay off would be in the dividend. So I've been asking myself what I'd do with an extra thousand dollars in my bank account?

Well I could think of a few things:
  • Help pay my rent
  • Go on better vacations every year
  • Consume more goods and services (eat out more, and at more expensive restaurants, buy more clothes, electronics, etc.)
  • Save it for retirement
  • Spend it towards further education
Here's what I would not do:
  • Quit my job
  • Stop working or stop being motivated to work

When I saw Tim Pool in person earlier this month, he spoke out against UBI because he said his teenage self would have been lazy with a thousand dollars every month. We'll that may have been true of him, but does it characterize what most people would do with a no-questions-asked thousand dollars a month? I'd say probably not. UBI is not supposed to resolve all problems, it's supposed to keep people afloat and give them a supplemental income as automation starts taking away our jobs.

Before I commit myself to big policy ideas I like to hear multiple perspectives so I'm still open to good criticisms of UBI before I fully commit. Right now, I think it is a promising idea and would be revolutionary in its practice for the US.

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